For me, two things have heralded the arrival of spring this year: Victoria plums and lambing – and this was a weekend of both! Growing up in North Devon you know spring has arrived when the fields start to fill with gamboling lambs, their white wooly coats speckling the view of the landscape for miles around. Having lots of farming friends meant that from a young age, every year come spring my sisters and I would help with the lambing at a friend’s sheep farm up on Exmoor called Ovis (Classicists will no doubt appreciate the name!). Unfortunately I haven’t been able to help for many years now since leaving home, but as I was at home this weekend and asked if I wanted to see how this year’s lambing was going on Ovis Farm, I couldn’t resist a visit and getting stuck in!
Whilst the day was filled with lambing, in the evening my mind turned to my preserved plums and the delicious spring dessert they would make! I’ve been looking forward to making this all week and it hasn’t been a disappointment, but turned out to be a wonderfully bright and sunshiny spring torte…
To prepare visciola cherry tourte without cheese.
Get visciola cherries, cook them in a little butter over a low fire and strain the thickest part of them. Have ground marzipan paste ready, fresh eggs yolks and mostaccioli, the amount of each at your discretion. When the filling is made up, have a tourte pan lined with a sheet of dough made from egg yolk, butter, sugar, rosewater, salt and fine flower, put the filling into it with a similar sheet of dough on top. The same can be done with plums.
– The Opera of Bartolomeo Scappi, Book VI, Recipe 128
800g preserved plums (see Plums Part 1 – Preserved Plums)
500g shortcrust pastry
250g biscotti/ cantucci
- Pre-heat the oven to 180°C and lightly grease a 23cm tart tin
- Roll the pastry out to about 3mm thickness on a lightly floured surface, then line the tin and prick the base with a fork
- Fill with baking beans and bake for 15 minutes until golden, then allow the pastry shell to cool completely before adding the filling
- Roll the marzipan out to about 6mm thickness and cut to size and place in the base of the pastry shell
- Crumble the biscotti/ cantucci (put into plastic bag and bash with a rolling pin – very therapeutic!) and sprinkle over marzipan
- Drain the liquid from the preserved plums and cut each plum into segments and starting from the centre, arrange over the top of the torte, starting from the centre and working your way out
This torte had just the kind of taste that appeals to me, not too sugary, but with a natural sweetness that comes from the fruit as the pervasive taste, much like the apple crostata of a few weeks ago. The first bite is wonderfully unexpected, too: the soft, yielding fruit just melts in the mouth whilst the crunchiness of the cantucci hidden beneath and the smoothness of the marzipan offers a perfect compliment of textures. The fruit was a little too soft for my taste, I’d have liked a little more bite so I will simmer them for a little less time in future, but they were still firm enough to keep their shape once sliced, so I’m happy with the outcome.
As for aesthetics, I think this makes such a marvelous-looking spring dessert, like a burst of sunshine or a flower unfurled. Whilst this recipe was made with Victoria plums, I’m now curious to try it with different varieties to see what other colourful creations they would make – mirabelles would give this even more vibrant a yellow and combined with damsons with their purple skins still on would look fabulous. I also quite like the idea of damsons and greengages for a more interesting colour combination, which certainly wouldn’t look out of place at a Mad Hatter’s Tea Party…